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Kaj Siab House
Today at the Kaj Siab House, we learned how to play the top game. We also saw the food that they cooked. The food that they cooked were egg rolls, stir-fry, rice/sticky rice, and this noodle dish. There were also music at the Kaj Siab House. The instruments were k’eng, flutes, and see saw (Xim Xaw). At the Kaj Siab House, we had a lot of fun. We played a top game. The player will have to throw the top and try to hit the one that is spinning on the ground. If you knock it down, you’ll get a point or something.
Today I observed that Hmong egg roll dip is almost kind of like the Chinese egg roll dip but the Chinese dip is sweeter and they don’t have any pepper in the egg roll dip and there was a different one and that one was hotter than the other one and it was tiny. There was a qeej player and his name was Et I think and he was dancing when he was playing the qeej and I thought it would take a lot of practice playing the qeej and dancing at the same time and I thought if you play the qeej like him you would have to take a lot of breath to play a long song. When we were playing Hmong games I observed that the rubber band game was different than the one we played at Bayview. We call it the qej kog kai and when we play in group and we play it we jump in a different way. The game we played was kind of similar to escape the tops.
At first when I looked at the food I thought I’d not like it. But when I got the plate I did not know what to get. When I looked at the food, well it smelled good and looked good. I only like the rice, bread, soup and punch. I liked the rice because it’s sticky and tasty. I liked the bread because it has the taste of canela etc. I learned that you can’t trust the lunch by its cover. The same thing as with a book. The games were great. The first game you played by throwing the rock and ten sticks up and catch the rock. If you catch it you go on but if you don’t that means you lose. I learned if you get all of the ten sticks you start the game again but of course you start out with two sticks. If you win that one you start another game but this time three, then four, then five sticks and etc. Another game is jumping over the string. I couldn’t do any of them well except the first because it was low. Then it got higher until no one could jump over. I forgot the rules and I didn’t bring my note book out so I didn’t write anything down so I can’t write anything about the rules.
Today at the Kaj Siab House I learned how to play Hmong games that I never had heard of and seen played before. I also learned that Hmong like hot spicy foods and have rice you eat with your fingers. Many different cultures have different foods than I am used to. I learned that k’eng players not only played k’eng, but they also dance to their music and most Hmong cultural music has meaning that speaks for itself. Today going to the Kaj Siab House on the bus I was a little nervous on how the Hmong elders would react. I also wondered how the food would taste and if it would be very spicy. When the school bus pulled up I was pretty frightless, but I still had a little bit of it. We entered the Kaj Siab House and the smells were familiar and different. The smells of people was the same, but the air smelled a little like the food. After we got out our note books, we headed out for a quick tour of the building. Mr. Wagler asked if anybody wanted to see the food and interview the cooks. I think that everybody went to interview the cooks.
I never thought I would have had so much fun as I had at the Kaj Siab House. The food was delicious, the entertainment was awesome, and the games were so fun! But the Kaj Siab House sure gave me some surprises. First of all, when we came out of the room where we had put our coats and backpacks, a man passed in front of me. Behind him was an elderly man. I let him pass. He then stopped in front of me, reached down and tousled my hair. Then he went on. I was amazed how welcoming they were to us! They did so much. Next stop was the kitchen. They were making noodles, pork, carrots, stir-fry and egg rolls (those were just the main dishes). There are different dishes in which different things are made in. For example, big bowls are usually for things like stir-fry and noodles, since they serve a lot of those. Then we all gathered in a big room at the center of the Kaj Siab House. First there were acknowledgments, then some speeches, and then a gift to the Kaj Siab House. It was a big wooden sign that said, “Welcome to the Kaj Siab House” in big letters with translation in Hmong on the bottom. There were designs all around the words and a frame that looked as if it was made of bamboo. The entertainment followed. First a man came out with four flutes. He told us that Hmong think flutes can speak to you. The first flute was called the tambla. It was big and played a little like our flute, except it was lower and bigger. Next there was a little flute, played a bit like a recorder, except it was higher and more piercing. The man sometimes slid his fingers when playing it, perhaps to make it quicker. The lei mei was the next flute he played. It was skinny, and it looked like the little flute, but it sounded more like a tambla. Next was the little tambla. It sounded like the tambla, except quicker and higher. After that, he asked us if we had heard the flutes talk. I don’t know if I did. The next piece of entertainment was a teenager playing the qeej (keng). He wore Hmong clothing and he had bare feet. He was making gestures with the qeej in a sort of dance. As he danced the coins on his clothing jingled, making even more music. Last in the entertainment was a player playing the Hmong violin. It had a wider bow than ours and he moved around while he played it. Its strings were very taught and pulled away from the wood/bamboo. It had only a few strings but it was interesting to listen to! After lunch, we learned how to play some Hmong games. Spin the top is one. Another is jump over the rope. One is a little like jacks, except it’s played with sticks and rocks. We tried to play all of them! I was having so much fun that I didn’t want to leave. All of the people encouraged us to come back. They sure were hospitable hosts! I hope we’ll go back soon.
Today at Kaj Siab House I learned about cooking, Hmong instruments and about Hmong games.
We interviewed some Hmong women about the dishes they made for lunch. The first one was a noodle dish. It had thin noodles, and vegetables in it. The next one was one that had baby corn, pepper, and vegetables, and a sauce on it. It also has pork in it. It is stir fried. In the egg rolls there are noodles, carrots, meat and eggs. They are delicious!
First there was a man who played four different kinds of Hmong flutes. The first one was a long, deep sounding flute. The second one was a small, high pitched flute. When he played that one he moved his fingers very quickly. The third one was a thin, medium sized flute. It was low sounding but not half as low as the first flute. The third flute was a medium sized flute that was pretty thick. Its pitch was in between high and low. The next performer was a qeej player named Etti. He danced really fast while he played the qeej. It didn’t sound like he took one breath. The next man played a Hmong violin. The sound was very high. The bow is underneath the strings. The bottom kind of looks like a drum.
Outside we played a game where you make a top spin on a board with a stick with a string on it. You wind the top up in the string then whip it onto the board. Then other people try to knock your top off with their tops. The game is very fun. Another game is where you try to jump over a string of rubber bands. You can push the rubber band down a bit, but then you jump over it. That was my favorite part.
I learned how to play a Hmong game a lot like jacks, one game I didn’t know the name of that had spinning tops in it, and a game where you jump over a rope of rubber bands.
There was purple colored sticky rice, normal white rice, some rice noodle dish with pork and some green leafy plant and a dish sort of like cashew chicken except with baby corn and mushrooms. They also had egg rolls. They were my favorite food there.
They had two kinds of drinks at the Kaj Siab House, some kind of grape Kool-Aid and a squash. They also had water fountains.
Today I learned a lot about Hmong games that are really fun. I think its unusual that there are men’s games and women’s games. In my family, if we like a game we play it. We don’t have to be a certain gender. I also learned that there are a lot more Hmong instruments than the k’eng. I think the violin looking one was interesting because of its sound and where you place it on your body when you play it. I also didn’t know that the k’eng sounded like so many instruments we’re playing. I think it’s kind of cool that way. What was also interesting was the rice was purple. The rice I usually eat is white or brown, not purple. I noticed that Hmong food is a lot like food in the other cultures of Thailand, like the really thin noodles I’ve ordered all the time in Thai restaurants. I also thought that, in a way, Hmong culture is a lot like my culture. For an example, they like games and I like games. But, then again, when I think of games, I think checkers or tag. When they think of games, they think of hit the top with another top, jacks, or jump over the rubber band.
At the Kaj Siab House there were padaus and a little qeej hung up on the wall with the pandau. The Hmong women were cooking some food to eat. Some of the Hmong women cooked a noodle dish and it looked delicious. In the noodle dish they cooked the meat first and then made the vegetables and put them in the bowl. If you put the noodles in boiling water the noodles would get softer. The stir-fry dish had lots of vegetables in it. The egg rolls had eggs in them. The egg rolls could also have any kind of meat. Lee Pao Yang is a flute player because he looks like he has a lot of flutes. Tha bli is a flute that he plays. Tha gia is what Lee Pao has. The laylay sounds low and not very loud. Et was playing the qeej and dancing with the qeej. He was wearing Hmong clothes with money on the clothes. The qeej looked like it was singing. Et is also a Hmong singer. Et is a junior student. Sea saw is like an instrument. It’s a stringed instrument. The sound of the sea saw is soft and gentle.
Most of the people at the center are Hmong elders. There are two story cloths and one of them is a picture of them escaping Laos and it shows them in the USA. But both of the cloths have writing on them, which they usually don’t. Next to one of the cloths there was a mini-qeej but I am not sure if it really works. There also are some pictures of the Hmong villages and people in them. For lunch they made a noodle dish with pork, onions, peanuts and a lot of vegetables. They made the noodles soft by soaking them in water and then they stirred the vegetables in. Another dish was a chicken stir-fry with some onions, peppers, nuts, baby corn, and some mushrooms. That dish was very spicy. They are able to make a lot of food quickly for about fifty people in like two hours. They also made egg rolls. The egg rolls, of course, had eggs, carrots, noodles and some pork. At the place there was a picture of a Hmong house and what was around the house. I think that they are going to use it to help them build one for the exhibit. There was also a big huge fan on the wall that had a picture of a Hmong village on it. The Hmong flute sounds a lot different than the ones that I hear. There are a few different sizes of flutes and they all have different sounds. There was also a Hmong violin and it had a bow and everything, but it only had one string so you would have to work differently on the Hmong one. There was also a game called tulu and they played it for us. You have to take a top thing and spin it with a stick and string onto a piece of cardboard or hard surface. Then each team has a chance to hit it off with another top and string. Another game is a game that is kind of like jacks, only with a rock and sticks. Once you get all ten of the sticks, you start over and you have to pick two sticks up, and the next time three sticks, etc. another game is when you take a bunch of rubber bands and tie them together like a rope and you keep raising it higher and you have to keep jumping over it. I forgot one thing about lunch. There was a lot of rice. There was this different kind of rice that was purple and sticky but it tasted the same.
Kaj Siab House is a place where Hmong elders can get together and talk in Hmong about both old and new times. Though most people there speak Hmong, some people speak English, too. They helped translate. One on informational poster on the wall, I read about a typical Hmong household, which would consist of a house, a storage shed for food, a community school, a blacksmith’s shop, pig pen, cow barn, horse stall, chicken coop and a fenced-in garden. The food they served us was delicious. There was a noodle dish with noodles as well as pork, carrots, peanuts and onions. We also had two different kinds of rice, one white and the other sticky. The egg rolls were filled with the noodle dish and they were my favorite. Later, we heard a handful of Hmong instruments played, four different flutes, the keng and the Hmong violin. After that we were introduced to some Hmong games. One was a top game, and another was a game where you have to jump over a huge rubber band. The last was a game like jacks but it was played with sticks and a stone.
Pao Vang is a manager at the Kaj Siab House. There’s a woman whose name is Sheng Vang. She said to all the people that were at the Kaj Siab House that the people who work there made the dinner for the people who work at the Children’s Museum because they are helping the Kaj Siab House. Coral gave Tim a sign that says welcome to Kaj Siab House. They made it for the house. There was a musician that played some instruments called ndaj plai, ndaj jhia and another kind of flute. There’s a boy called Et Yany and he goes to East High School and at Kaj Siab House he played the qeej. Chang Xiong played a sea saw and it kind of looked like a violin. When we went to the kitchen, they made some noodle dish, egg rolls and more things that had vegetables in them. I really liked the peppers. Outside, some elders played touloue. I don’t really know how to explain things like how you play this or what it’s made of.
At the Kaj Siab House, I learned how to make some Hmong foods. To make a noodle dish, you make the noodles soft in water. Then you put pork and vegetables into the noodles before mixing them all up to make egg rolls. You basically put this stuff in the wrapping and you have an egg role. These things are not very traditional. I also learned what the traditional Hmong household is like. It has seven pieces. The first one is a home, of course, then there is a storage place close by. There is also a school and blacksmith, there is a pig pen, stables, cow place and a chicken coop. There is also a fenced-in garden. A funny Kaj Siab House custom is that when they say something is at a certain time, it is thirty minutes to one hour after that (today we were right on time). Hmong people use all sorts of things to represent Hmong history and culture. At the Kaj Siab House, we saw quilts called story cloths representing farming and immigration. We also saw a fan that had a painting of a Hmong village, in Laos, probably. I learned how to play some Hmong games there, too. In one of them, one team spins a top like thing on a board with a stick and string. The other team has the same materials to try to knock it down. In another game, you throw up a rock and a bunch of sticks, let the sticks fall and catch the rock. Then you throw up the rock, pick up a stick, then catch the rock with the stick in your hand. You keep doing this until you have all the sticks, kind of like jacks. The last game I learned is very simple, you merely jump over a long rubber band. To play some Hmong instruments, this is what you do. To play a Hmong violin, you put a barrel-like thing and bow across the strings. You blow into qeejs and Hmong flutes.
When we first got to Kaj Siab House, we first put our coats away. Then we went into the main area and had welcoming speeches for a half-hour. Then came the performers. The first was a man who played four different flutes, and he played them all for us. On the first, it sounded like a kazoo was in harmony with a jug blower, or a set of pan pipes. The second was more kazooish, as though there were now several people with one set of pan pipes. The third was amazing. On the lower notes it was the sound of blowpipes, the upper notes, a qeej. I do not remember the fourth. The next performer was a qeej (pronounced keng) player. As he played the qeej, he did an intriguing and mesmerizing dance, and it was obvious that he was barefoot. I didn’t know why. The final performer was playing a Hmong violin, a one-stringed instrument. It had a drum-type base and a long stick to which the string was attached. I cannot describe it beyond this. Next, we went to the kitchens. We saw some of the things the Hmong cooks were making for lunch. They were making a noodle dish, egg rolls, and other things which I didn’t see. Then it was lunch. After lunch, we went outside. We saw a game called Toolee. They took large tops and spun them with string on sticks. Then someone else threw a top at the spinning one, trying to knock the top over. Then, we tried to jump over a giant rubber band, held shoulder high. There was an element of sport about it, with some mention of good teams and strategies. But I did not latch on.
Some Hmong culture I observed is that they are great dancers and musicians. My favorite instrument played was the qeej. The man who played the qeej danced to the rhythm of his playing. He was wearing traditional clothing and strapped to a vest were hundreds of little coins so that when he danced they clanged together and made a cool sound. Another cool thing about Hmong culture is the food they make. It was delicious. I especially liked the bowl of soup broth with noodles, many vegetables, and peppers. Everyone except me thought that the peppers were very hot. My personal favorite thing that I observed today was the games Hmong people play. The one I liked the most was the one where people would start a big wooden or plastic top in the middle and two teams tried to knock it off a board that was under it. If a person on your team knocked it off, your team got a point!!
We went to the kitchen where they make these wonderful things. The egg roll is one of the favorites among our class. They showed us, well, actually, they told us how to make them. You put pork (or whatever meat you’d like) in and some noodles and vegetables in a bowl. Then you wrap some of the noodles, vegetables and pork in the egg wrapper and work. Most of their food ways they’ve adopted from America. They served Kool-Aid and had stir-fry and nice combinations of both cultures.
On the street, Hmong wear clothes just like you and I. But on special occasions, and sometimes when playing instruments, they wear their traditional clothes. Traditional clothes often have coins hung on them. They often have bright colors like bright pink and neon orange. They tend to have triangles and circles, too! They have spirals, too!
Well, today we saw a ‘k’eng being played. This k’eng player would play and travel around and do dances. He’d go in circles in one place at first, then he’d go in circles with one foot up. Then he began to go in a big circle, spinning around. Near the end, he went in zigzags, too! Someone played something called the Hmong violin. It has a wooden bow and two strings. There’s a barrel down near the bottom with a silver shine. These instruments sound like something you’ve never heard before. The k’eng is supposed to talk to spirits. That way, people can tell when you’re faking. These instruments are used for more than music.
Tou Ger Xiong, Comedian
Hmong is a very special tradition that can be funny or sad.
So imagine never using a toilet before and that you had to go outside on a tree every time you had to go [to the bathroom]. Then coming to America seeing a strange appliance and someone tells you that you actually have to go on it. When you finally pluck up the nerves to go, they tell you that you have to drain the water. You wouldn’t know how to, so you think he means you have to get a bucket and take all the water out. Then you see the water going around and around in circles. Ahhh, it’s going to suck me in. That’s what you are thinking as you are running away. Also, the man that tells you to do all this is weird, as he doesn’t have brown eyes and black hair like everyone else you’ve ever met. Nope, he’s a monster with yellow hair and, well, blue eyes. Then, you think he’s trying to suck you into his world and turn you into a monster like him.
Back in Laos, they had to wash their feet before they go to sleep. So, they thought it was for washing their feet, so they put their feet in it. The sister yelled and said this is not how you are supposed to do it. You have to pee in it.
I didn’t think there are many Hmong comedians, if any. But after I saw this video, I thought differently.
It is just as funny to be Hmong as it is to be American.
Tou Ger questioned his father, “What is America?” His father replied, “It’s in the clouds. We take a metal bird up and there’s America.”
Then, his sister showed him the sofa. That was “cool.” They bounced up and down. They saw the TV next. Wow, they thought. Then they noticed the fridge.
She scolded them, and told them about the bathroom [in the house]. They walked in [to the bathroom]. “Where’s the tree?” they asked.
Tou Ger ran to his house and told his mom about the giant [the missionary] and his mother said, “Keep away, they bite.”
When he want to school, he saw that everybody liked to skip, and he thought everyone walked weird.
Before, I kind of thought that the Hmong only did things like funerals and qeej playing. I now know that they have their own sense of humor, just like every culture.
It was funny when [his dad] said, “Don’t go closer, or they’ll bite you, son.”
I understand Hmong culture differently, because Tou Ger Xiong made me feel a little braver.
Just because the Hmong have gone through and endured crossing dangerous rivers, fires, war, and hard times…doesn’t mean they’re just going to say “I’m done…I’ll never laugh or run in fields or help in golden fields of rice, again…” No! The Hmong say, “I’ve gone through a lot. But that can’t stop me from farming, gardening, having fun, etc. I’m going to make the best of it.”
Back in Laos, people went barefoot. The rule was to wash your feet before you go to bed. So, when Tou and his brother saw the big white bowl, they didn’t immediately realize what it was. “Oh, look! A special bowl to wash your feet in! Press the handle and your feet get cleaned.”
United Refugee Services
As I stepped off the yellow school bus I saw a white, square, one-story building. There was a sign that read: United Refugee Services. At first I thought the building was kind of dull, but little did I know what was in store inside.
I thought it was interesting that some of the things hanging [on display] weren’t just crafts and things from Laos. There was a bulletin board all about government for the refugees so they would understand government in America. [The bulletin board had] a newspaper clipping with all the presidents and descriptions about them, a written English test, and facts about what’s going on in the world right now.
[There was a doll] dressed in traditional clothing but her skin was pale, her hair was brown and she had blue eyes with extra long eyelashes. She didn’t look like any Hmong person I’ve seen. There are many reasons why this could have been. Maybe that was the only kind of doll they had or maybe the makers were going to sell it to non-Hmong people and thought they would like it better as a European person. (I don’t know about you but I’d rather have a doll that looked like the culture it was from.)
On the bus back to Randall I thought about how different this experience was from Kaj Siab House, but [also] how similar in how kind people were, and generous and welcoming. Thanks URS!
About 20 years ago, United Refugee Services started helping refugees [including] about 5,000 Hmong, 700 Cambodian, 700 Lao and even about 150 from the former Yugoslavia. The United Refugee center [helps] people get new jobs, [find] homes and adjust to their new lives, language and skills
The United Refugee Service doesn’t only help new Hmong refugees, they also help Lao, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees learn English, find a job and resettle in the community. They have a food pantry for refugees that have just come and can’t support themselves.
We all saw a picture of a refugee camp. It was very large and I could see the fence around the refugee area. Some women wore traditional Hmong clothing to the [event at] the center. Jenny said they looked young and pretty wearing traditional Hmong clothes.
The Children’s Museum has been coming here since July to get lots of information about what life was like [for the Hmong] in Thailand and they’ve gotten a lot. That’s because there a lot of people here who [lived] in the [Thai] refugee camps.
While we were there we took a look around at [all the] neat things they had on display. One thing I looked at in detail was the story cloth.
At first I thought it showed a Hmong village in Laos. But then I noticed, down toward the bottom of the story cloth, it showed people with baskets on their backs [like] the ones they use for the market. I finally figured it out when I looked at the bottom; it showed a person laying out vegetables on a stand. It was, in fact, a Hmong market place.
[Another story cloth] had white writing underneath each scene. “It’s like a sewn comic book,” I said.
I had three main delights. My first one was eating egg rolls and drinking Koolaid. My second one was finding out about a new instrument called a “kieta.” My third delight was when I was eating an egg roll and looking at a [Hmong] doll and old man walked up to me, speaking Hmong. I could not understand him but finally I understood what he meant. He meant to feed the egg roll to the doll! So, I pretended to feed it to her.
Hmong flutes are usually for girlfriends and boyfriends. When he plays he doesn’t jump around, he just walks and sometimes bends down.
I noticed that many of the flutes sounded like a lot like the qeej. All of them looked kind of plain, but the sound they made was incredible!
All the games [we played] were fun, but it was [even] more fun [playing them] in front of an audience and the class and to have classmates cheering you on. I like these games because they played them in Laos and played them for fun. Now games have batteries; you would never [need to] go to a toy store to get [the things you need for these games]: rubber bands, sticks, old flip-flops. No way! It was very nice for them to have us. Thank you!
[A man] picked [some] kids from our class to play a marble game that none of us have ever seen. You take turns trying to shoot a marble into a hole. If [your marble is] within a hand length [of the hole] you can just put your marble in. After you get the marble in the hole, [the other player] tries to hit it. If you do, you win!
In one game, you put a lot of rubber bands on a stick, loosely, so they can fall off. You put the stick on the ground and draw a line about ten feet away. You also need a partner and some shoes. Standing by the stick, you each throw one shoe, the person who gets closest to the line goes first. You stand behind the line and try to hit the stick with the shoe. If you hit the stick and knock some rubber bands off it the ones that are not touching the stick are yours to keep. Wherever your shoe lies is where you stand for your next turn. The person who gets the last rubber band wins.
At the URS, we met Yang Cha [who] had a Hmong rifle. It was used to hunt and protect the family. The gun has [belonged to his family] since the Vietnam War started. It has a special rock that makes sparks when it goes off [and] you have to reload it every time you shoot. It can shoot about 50 yards.
The Hmong people there were so welcoming to us and happy for us to be there. I feel so comfortable with the Hmong people now.
Needlework and Clothing at the Hmong-American Friendship Association
At the Hmong American Friendship Association we were met by a women named Seng Lo. She’s lived in Milwaukee for over twenty years by now. She told us the Hmong American Friendship Association is so named because Hmong and American people work there and because everyone helps each other and, in doing so, learn each other’s language.
When I got to HAFA, I thought the vast, enormous building would be all fancy and filled with the flowery smell of funny incense that makes your nostrils quiver. But, gee, was I wrong! Sure, it was big but it was definitely NOT fancy. It was cool!
We walked into a room with the biggest story cloth I’ve ever seen: six feet high and eight or more feet long. That is taller and much wider than me!
The first room we went to was the sewing room. Old grandmas were sitting in there, cutting out paper.
Seng Lo told us about the story cloth. It had a teacher and a little boy or girl. It looked like the little boy or girl was going to get hit.
Seng Lo guided us through the museum. It was cool because they had lots of things like the rice mill…, shamanism stuff like the horns, money and bells and stuff like that. Then we moved on and she talked about the rice grinder…and some blacksmith stuff. There were knives, a gun they used to use to kill animals and a crossbow. The crossbow was for shooting birds in Laos (the crossbow was probably the most useful thing to use).
We moved on and saw the enormous and most beautiful, brightly colored Hmong women’s clothes. In the gift shop there were so many cool designs, I couldn’t believe my eyes because there were so many bright colors. The designs on the clothes were marvelous and hand made.
Sheng Lo said you could tell if someone is white or black Hmong by their clothes because they each wear different clothes.
Emma put on the Hmong clothes. I think she was happy, I could tell by the smile on her face. Then some of the other girls got into the Hmong clothes. I think they were happy like Emma because of the smiles. Everybody looked like they were having fun. I was glad they were happy.
In the first display case were things a shaman (Hmong doctor) would use like goat horns (used to see if the shaman made a successful journey to the spirit world), cymbals and gongs that the shaman’s assistant uses to make the shaman’s army stronger to fight the evil spirits, and a split, doughnut-like thing the shaman uses to see if he has caught and returned the spirit back to the body.
There were Hmong clothes that people used to wear in Laos. The cloths were old fashioned with many designs on them. There were corn leaves used for wrapping things up. There were pictures of the Hmong people leaving Laos and heading for the United States, gardening, playing games, doing needlework and just looking at the camera.
There were hollow rings with bells inside them, used when the shaman gallops off to the spirit world. The bells jingle pretty loudly.
There was also a Hmong soldier’s uniform and boots from the CIA (secret) war. Sadly, there were many young soldiers and many of them died.
There was a rice grinder which is just a bowl with a big fat stick in it because there were no machines to do it for them.
There were also big silver necklaces. Every girl should have one.
The bow and arrow was practically made of wood alone, including the arrows! The girl’s necklace looked like silver and gold. I wonder how much it cost? I bet it probably cost a whole lot of money, or maybe I am wrong, maybe they cost less.
There were Hmong rifles filled with black powder, knives and even Hmong mouse traps!!! Last but not least there was a cool Hmong violin with a big dragon head and red eyes!”
Hmong women always carried their babies on their backs using only very tough rags that were sewn together.
A story cloth is a “quilt” woven by the Hmong women to represent their journey and culture to other people. For example, we have a story cloth in our classroom showing everyday life in Laos before the Vietnam War. Another example is being displayed at the Hmong American Friendship Association in Milwaukee. This story cloth shows [the journey] from life in Laos to the new life in America.
Story cloths are kind of a mixture of books, tapestries, and quilts. They have pictures, look like blankets, and are hung on walls. They remind the Hmong people of Laos, family, the hard journey, and life here in America—hardships, losses, kindness, and hope for a better life here. Story cloths tell of many things us Americans don’t understand. They have maps, traditions, ways of traveling, places in Laos, loved objects, and memories and stories from long ago. They’re like books, only without the hard-cover beneath the cloth, no words, either—just pictures, cloth, and memory.
These special things are made in Laos, Thailand, China, refugee camps, and here in America. Often, there is a mountain design border near the edge. In the middle, there are pictures. Traditional animals are often there: pigs, cows, roosters and bulls. One of the things I found interesting was the size of them. Most of them are rather small, a few are medium, but a couple of them are HUGE! The largest one I saw was 5 by 8 feet. The bigger it is, the more story it contains. On this huge story cloth there were stages, villages, oceans, animals, and much more. It showed Hmong buildings, soldiers, air crafts, people fleeing, and the Mekong River. The Mekong River was a large stretch of water that the Hmong people from Laos had to cross to get into Thailand, where they would be safe. But enemy soldiers guarded the shores. If they caught you, they would shoot you.
When we got off the bus to go inside the Hmong American Friendship Association, all I saw was a small building with windows. I had no idea what a huge amount of Hmong culture would be inside.
We met Sheng Lo, the teacher of a sewing class. She showed us a huge story cloth, six feet wide and eight feet long. It was covered by plastic for protection. The story cloth showed four different places: China, Laos, Thailand, and America. It was divided in half by the Mekong River. The story was the history of the Hmong. First, it showed them escaping from China into Laos, where the cloth showed them farming and living a peaceful life. Then it showed the Americans coming and asking the Hmong to participate in the CIA “secret war”. Many Hmong were killed and many escaped into the jungle. They could spend years in the jungle, living on roots! [The cloth showed how] some Hmong finally escaped to the Mekong River, but only some. The Communists found out where they were hiding and poisoned the water that they drank. The story cloth shows people escaping across the Mekong in boats, or with bamboo under their arms, or swimming. Sheng Lo told us that a man drew the story cloth and a woman embroidered it.
At the Hmong American Friendship Association there is a 5 by 8 story cloth made by a 67-year-old woman who lives in Thailand. It showed all of the Laotian Hmong’s history—coming to Laos, their life before the Vietnam war, the CIA secret war, escaping Laos, crossing the Mekong River with Communist soldiers patrolling the bank, life in a Thai refugee camp surrounded by barbed wire, the buses to Bangkok, and a corner for modernized America. It was amazing.
Exhibit at the Kohler Art Center
We went to the Kohler Art Center on our quest for Hmong culture.
When we arrived at the Art Center, we were greeted by a wonderful lady named Lisa. She told us that 20 years ago, they had started an exhibit on Hmong art at a festival. That is what got Mr. Wagler (our teacher) interested in Hmong culture.
While we walked through the Kohler Art Center we saw a shoe display. The shoe I remember the most was the shoe with the alligator head in place of the toe. When we got to the back of the Center we looked at a whole lot of Hmong objects. A Hmong lady named Paulina and her two aunts showed us her Hmong objects that we actually got to touch and hold. We held a ball that is used in the ball toss game, a picture of some people in Laos, and a thing that is used to carry babies.
There was a baby carrier and Paulina demonstrated how to put it on. The strap goes over the mother’s shoulders, under the baby’s arms and then supports its behind. In Laos the mothers carried their babies everywhere with them.
There was also a baby hat that is supposed to protect the baby from the sun when the parents are working out in the fields. There was a New Years hat for a baby.
The hats women wear have colors that are bright and have many Hmong coins hanging off the hat so it’s touching your head. When I put one on its really up to my eyes so I can’t really see.
The clothes Hmong boys wear mostly black or white. It depends what kind of Hmong you are. If you’re green Hmong, you wear green sleeves. If you’re striped, you wear striped sleeves. It goes on and on.
We saw an incredibly strange story cloth that had words instead of pictures. Not a picture in sight!
There was a story cloth that ended in “and.” I wonder why it ended in an and. Maybe so it would let you finish the story or maybe it is continued someplace else or even maybe some sort of a tradition.
Story cloths are “quilts” that tell stories. The Hmong quilts are called paj ntaubs (pandaus). It means story cloths. Story cloths are made by hand by Hmong women. It’s very hard to make a story cloth by yourself. You need lots of help from elders.
Story cloths were the only way of passing on stories non-orally. Because there was no Hmong alphabet. They invented one in the 1900s.
Story cloths are a piece of needlework that tell a story through characters sewed onto cloth. We saw lots of story cloths on our tour. The largest was at the Hmong American Friendship Building. At the center in Green Bay, we saw a story cloth about the Hmong and Americans fighting the Vietnamese. At the Kohler Arts Center there was a story cloth about the ball toss game.
The most common border on a story cloth is the mountain pattern. It can be blue or purple, and the pattern is made by forming light and dark triangles. Another word for story cloth is paj ntaub (pandau).
The lady that was in charge of the exhibit told us that this “paj ntaub” has glittery parts because it was just a design and it was supposed to interest people. There is one that is needleworked by Black Hmong and it was a cross-stitch of a baby carriage.
At the end of seeing the exhibit, they led us to a long table covered with things we could touch. I quickly became attached to a bucket of thread. Not just any thread! The softest thread you ever felt!
It’s a shame how much culture is lost because of the war…
Presentations at the Hmong Association
The first Hmong family came to Sheboygan in 1976. From a photograph [we were shown], we all figured that this was a pretty big family but nothing compared to the 6,500 Hmong there are in Sheboygan now!
An interesting thing we learned was about Bosnian refugees. Bosnian people are not Hmong people. They’re totally different, but they went through basically the same hardships and journeys the Hmong people went through. They were being bombed out of their homeland and didn’t come to America because they wanted to—they had to!
In 1982 there were problems with gang membership [among the youth in the Hmong community. They joined gangs] because a lot of young Hmong have to live in two worlds: at home (Hmong) and at school (American). The Hmong often are torn! They ended up choosing a gang as a way out.
Another man taught us how to play tub lub. It is a game that Hmong people play, often at New Years. You have a stick with a small rope on it; you wind a top up in the small rope. Then you hold the top in one hand and the stick in the other and whip the top onto the ground. Then you pull back on the string and the top will spin. Other people will try to knock your top off. They let us spin the tops in the hall, it was super fun!
Then we went to play Tub Lub. Everybody went to play but me because I thought I’d do bad, but when I saw other people playing and making mistakes [so I thought I would try]. I went up to the line when it was my turn, I made a mistake but it started to get fun so I went again and the second time, I did it! It stood up and spun! I am not lying but I couldn’t try again because we had to leave.
The top game was made for girls because this man had three daughters and no sons and wanted a son, so he invented the top game and said whoever beats one of his daughters can marry her and play tub lub with the dad. This way the dad would have a son in law and not be lonely any more.
At the end of our visit the Hmong man gave us some paper with Hmong designs on them that you can color. I am coloring my designs for Christmas presents!
The Hmong people said they let the other refugees work there because they feel they had to go through the same difficulties as the Hmong.
Green Bay United Hmong Community Center
Hmong marriage is very different from American marriage, because in our culture we get to choose who to marry. But in Hmong culture, their elders or someone in their clan arrange the marriage.
It isn’t just two people getting married; it isn’t just two people. It’s two families, two villages, and two clans.
Yia Thao also talked about what you need at a wedding: Bridesmaid, Bestman, Two marriage negotiators from bride’s side, Groom, Bride, Two marriage negotiators from the groom’s side, One elder, Two parents from each side, and Two brothers, by religion.
After that, the bride and groom negotiate about the dowry, and how to treat each other with respect. Both sides give money, but the son’s parents give money to the bride’s parents and it is kind of like buying her. They gave silver coins in Laos, but here they just give money.
You can’t marry your own clan; that’s the law. If you marry a man you become [one of his] clan. In the regular weddings the man steals the brides to the man’s house. When they get to the man’s house, the parents have to hold a chicken and wave it around the man and bride, and what I think that means is that the bride is becoming that clan or a welcome.
You need a mej koob to get married. A mej koob is a person who helps out with the marriage to make the bride a new life and to make her part of her new family.
There are two different kinds of ways to meet to be married:
1. The bride and the groom meet at the Hmong New Year at the ball toss.
2. The marriage for the bride and groom would be a request by the relatives of the groom’s family, family elders, and sometimes a request of the bride’s family.
In Hmong conflict resolution, there is no appeals system. If the family elders make a decision, it’s final. They do not appeal it to the next level of community elder. If the family elders do not make a decision, but the clan community elder does, the ruling is final and the case does not go to court.
If the girl doesn’t want to get divorced and the guy does, then the guy would have to pay money for the girl to go home, and go live with her family again.
Hmong people’s clans are Xiong, Thao, Vang, Yang, Lao, Lee, Cha, Moua, etc. If a woman and a man are going to divorce in Hmong they need to go to the elders, parents or family, or relatives come and help you. In Hmong, you don’t go to courts to get a divorce—only for Hmong Christians—but Hmong go to the people they already know. The judge is like a stranger to you, and your people are not a stranger to you, and I think that’s why some Hmong people don’t want to go to church and don’t know the language.
In the Hmong culture the people who solve conflicts are the elders. Not every old Hmong can be an elder. They have to be elected or chosen. In every clan there are about three to four elders.
If a Hmong person gets in trouble or has a problem with somebody else, they go to the clan elder. If the clan elder thinks the problem is important enough, the person goes to the community elder. Then the community elder lets them go to court, or makes them go to court.
A question I had is if you are a Hmong married lady, and you had a problem, and you were going to your elders, would you go to your new elders (your husband’s) or your original clan elders?
Hmong Youth Radio
On our Hmong cultural tour, we went to a radio place. There we talked into a microphone about our trip, and how it is important to us. First we introduced ourselves, then we started to answer questions, like “how is it meaningful, how does it help you understand, what is your goal for the trip?” So we answered it.
They record your voice on a computer and they cut out the bad parts, (then) burn it and play it on their next show. This radio program is not live so the people can make mistakes and they will just cut it off.
Also the microphone is very sensitive—if you speak very soft it will still pick it up. On the computer you can change the pitch and how loud it is.
Chippewa Valley Museum
We went to the Chippewa Valley Museum on our Hmong tour and did a lot of things. We saw an object theatre, looked at panels, and went through archives.
An object theater is a very dark room where you sit down and there are voices from speakers and pictures that appear.
This told the whole story of people who came to Wisconsin, with a small section about the Hmong. This also told about getting used to life in America. Food, work, everything.
The object theatre was about foodways… [A film] had voices, laughing and talking. We heard some songs in the background. It also showed the foods that they talked about, and it was kind of freaky because this thing kept on turning around and we saw all the kinds of food that looked real.
The object theatre was awesome, pictures popped up and went away, lights came on and off. One of the display sets is somewhat of a dining room [with] a table, some silverware, a candle and a vase full of flowers. Also in the dining room there was a kitchen. This is because the refugees/pioneers couldn’t afford to but an entire other room. In the other display area many things “appeared” because there were three rotations. One was about musical “opportunities” the refugees had, one was about hunting and the other one, I can’t remember …
… I can only tell one thing I remember. When the Hmong came they didn’t know anything [about America]. They did not know how to speak English or how to cook because they usually cooked on stoves with fire, so they thought the fireplace was to cook their food. They had a guide who was Hmong, so the guide told everything. When Mayhoua came she thought the Jell-O’s were crayon because they had colors. … She [also] had lots of depressions because she was having a hard time in America. But later on she started to understand about American culture.
Archives are kind of like a library, except there are objects and pictures in archives and there’s no fiction section, it’s all information. There were two tables with pictures scattered all over them. First someone talked to us about creating and researching an exhibit. They said there [are] four big areas in the exhibit, what was life like in Laos before the war, what changes happened during the war, fleeing across the Mekong, and how being a refugee is different than being an immigrant. I think they showed all these very well.
In the library we saw photos from the original, larger exhibit. The ones from Laos basically were of farming. They showed the fields, the villages, the houses, but most of them were of people farming, although there were some household work ones too. The museum must have been lucky to get some of the photos they had from the war. They had some of not only people in uniform, marching, but of training. I have no idea where they got those.
One that struck me was a lady picking vegetables. She had an odd look on her face, as if scared or tired… One of my favorite pictures was of a big family (5 kids) in America sitting on a couch, while their dad tells them something… The Hmong life in Laos pictures show pigs and chickens running around wild. A teenager is feeding a ton of wild chickens. She looks a little freaked out. I know I would be. They had some secret war pictures. One was of a Hmong soldier with and army general. What shocked me was that the troop[s] behind them [were] only Hmong. There were no American soldiers!
The last place we went at the museum was the panel exhibit of Hmong culture. [The exhibit] “Across the Mountain Tops of Laos” showed how happy the Hmong were before The Vietnam War. There was a photo of the beautiful landscape they lived in. There was an article they talked about the farming they did. One Hmong child said this: “I remember going with my parents to the rice field. I remember seeing them cut down trees. … They know how to make axes.” There was a photo of a village and there was a photo of the paj ntaub (pandau) that was just patterns.
The war one had one of the most terrible photos I had ever seen. That photo was of a boy, must have been 5 or 6, in uniform, getting ready to go to war. The article there was from a Hmong soldier. “It was a time … of fighting, and a lot of American jets or airplanes shooting bombs. … We were surrounded by the communists. …” There was a photo of a home in the mountains, the fields destroyed by Pathet Lao.
The Hmong then fled and got “Crowded into Refugee Camps,” as the title says. This one showed a picture of the new paj ntaub, the story cloth. There was a photo of tons of Hmong standing, crowded, waiting for the apartment. As one refugee said, “In 1976, there were 12,000 of us.”
“Starting over in Eau Claire” had what we might think of as a normal life. Why would normal life be put in an exhibit? Because it wasn’t normal for the Hmong. The largest picture was of a normal, busy highway. But in Laos, the Hmong didn’t even have cars. All the other photos were like that except for one. It was of a Hmong girl standing alone, confused, on a school playground.
The kids from Longfellow Middle School taught us a game that they play to help them understand how to learn culture better.
The game goes like this: you separate into two groups, one in each room. (This time the groups were called the Betas and Alphas.) One group plays one game; the other plays the other. This is the Alpha’s game: everyone gets a chip. To ask to play the game you stomp your feet three times. To say yes you tap the person’s shoulder who asked; to say no you walk away. If you say yes you hide the chip behind your back in one hand. The person who asked then guesses by touching one arm which hand the chip is in. If they get it correct they say “rafa-rafa” three times and everyone taps their shoulder. If they don’t you walk away. There are also elders who always have to win. One more thing: no talking.
One of the hardest things was that you couldn’t talk unless you were saying “Rafa-Rafa,” because that is against the rules. The kids from the other group came in without knowing any of the rules and the first thing they did was talk. The elders then kicked them out…
The Betas were traders. Each of them started off with five different cards. They had to go around trading, and the object of the game was to get five of the same color cards but with a different animal on each. Then you would get five points, which was money. There were a few trading limits, however. The main catch was that we didn’t speak English so we would hold up the color card we wanted and make the animal’s noise. So if I held up a blue card and went “oink, oink” that would mean I wanted a blue pig, etc. The Beta had a big personal “bubble” (a no-touch zone) and when we agreed on a trade you would set the card down far away then the other person would do the same. Then you would pick up the other person’s card without touching them, and go trade some more.
After we practiced with our separate groups, we’d be allowed to enter the other “culture” and try to understand their game…. I figured out as soon as I got in (to the Beta game) and was handed my cards that the tricky part was figuring out how to trade. It would have taken me a while to figure it out if I had walked around and tried to interact, so I decided to sit back and observe. One thing I discovered immediately was that everybody was walking around making animal noises… if you wanted a card with a cow on it, you’d say: “moo.” That left me with one question—how do I communicate which color I want? After a bit more observing I realized that you held up another card of the color you wanted to receive and if they had it, they’d drop it on the ground and you’d drop another and that’s how you traded…. It was pretty hard to figure out what to do in the opposite culture and the game obviously was to be compared with situations like Hmong coming to America…